Month: October 2015

Four Silent Comedy Contenders

I’m blogging about comedy films seen at Kennington Bioscope’s SILENT LAUGHTER SATURDAY.

The first show of the afternoon was my turn to take the stage, presenting some shorts starring forgotten silent comedians. Time has slimmed down  our view of popular culture so that a few names dominate – to the novice, Chaplin and maybe Keaton. To the slightly more dedicated film fan – Harold Lloyd, L & H, maybe at a pinch Harry Langdon. But silent comedy was a huge, rich field. So many talented names are unfairly forgotten, so it was a privilege to give these neglected talents some of the exposure they deserve. The four SILENT CONTENDERS I selected were great comedians all, at one time or another, tipped to be the next Chaplin, Keaton or Lloyd. That they didn’t quite make it was down was down to a variety of factors ( the studio system, time and place, personal demons, etc). Nevertheless, they turned out some work that I think is quite, quite wonderful in its own right.

film_linder

First up, was a comedian who pre-dated even Chaplin. Max Linder was one of the first international comedians. He was French, and making films from the mid 1900s for Pathe. These little films, with their cardboard painted sets, are primitive in their look, but Linder’s acting and directing are amazingly sophisticated for films over 100 years old. He played a suave yet often embarrassed boulevardier, a silk-hatted Romeo who got himself into farcical situations like fighting duels and hiding inside suits of armour. Chaplin was a fan, dedicating a photo to him “ To the one and only Max- the professor”. He could well have made it.
visuel_15But then, WW1 intervened, just as Chaplinmania was striking. It was a fulcrum of Linder’s career for two reasons. For one thing, it decimated the French film industry. Linder managed to get around this by going to America to make films. At a time when anything vaguely. Chaplin-related was gold dust, an endorsement from the man himself was irresistible to the American studios. However, the war had also had a more personal, and sinister, impact on Linder; called up and severely injured in conflict, his experiences affected him mentally and physically. He would never quite have the strength to capitalise on his opportunities, and eventually his demons won with his 1925 suicide.

Before this tragedy, he did make a run of 3 superb feature films in the U.S.. ‘Seven Years bad luck’, ‘The Three must Get There’s’ and ‘Be My Wife’, failed to win the audience they deserved to give Max a breakthrough to the big time. Despite this, they are really quite excellent. We showed a scene from seven Years bad luck that is an antecedent of the famous ‘mirror routine’ in Duck Soup. A  masterpiece of timing and comic reaction, It went over a treat with the audience.

The other three ‘contenders’ were comics who flourished in short films, but never made it to features. Over time, feature films came to be seen as the acid test for greatness, but this wasn’t always the case. In the beginning, all comedy films were short. When Mack Sennett made the feature length ‘Tillie’s Punctured Romance’, they said it couldn’t be done. When Chaplin made ‘THE KID’ , publicity marvelled at the 6 reel picture “ upon which the famous comedian has worked a whole year!” If only they’d known how long it would later take him to make ‘CITY LIGHTS’.

Of course, Chaplin’s features were a great success; features became the norm. Shorts, over time, became the Cinderella. Today, the comics best remembered are the ones who took on the challenge of feature length films – carrying the fuller, more developed stories showed their skill, and these are indeed the films that endure the best.

However, there’s been this image of the comics in shorts, with a view that anyone who couldn’t make it in features was a lesser talent. That it was all just moustachioed men falling in water and flinging custard pies around like  But shorts, in their own way, are a separate art form. To tell a story, keeping a constant ripple of laughter is no mean feat. I think it’s a good analogy to the classic sitcoms of the 70s. Dad’s Army, Porridge, Are You Being Served? They all tried to make feature versions, but they’re always disappointing. Some things are just better in miniature.

Of course, with so many thousands of shorts being turned out, yeah, there’s a lot of dreck. But there are also many, many gems, including some by our next three comedians.

images5

Lloyd Hamilton was a comedian’s comedian. Keaton said he was, “one of the funniest men in pictures,”, while Mack Sennett said “[he] had comic motion. He could do nothing except walk across the screen, and still he’d make you laugh.” What appealed to fellow performers was his unique style of reactionary comedy; playing an overgrown mama’s boy, he relied less on mechanical gags and slapstick than reacting to an endless series of disasters that befell him. His comic equipment included a tottering walk ill-matched to his eternal sense of dignity, a silly pancake hat and a range of hilarious facial expressions. Hamilton could show disgust or disdain better than perhaps any other performer at that time. Oliver Hardy certainly picked up some hints for camera looks from him. Unlike many comedians, he didn’t especially need a strong strong storyline, just to have a really, really bad day! The titles of his films, such as  ‘CRUSHED’, ‘LONESOME’ or ‘NOBODY’S BUSINESS’ reflect this; they sound more like Kafka novels than comedies!

Lloyd Hamilton Robinson Crusoe Ltd_ (cinemaro93ome_0158)

Unfortunately, most of Hamilton’s best work went up in smoke years ago. Scattered examples do exist, but it was a challenge to find a film in projectable quality that represented him well. We had to settle for THE SIMP, an early, embryonic film in his canon. It’s not one of his very best, but has some good examples of his anti-hero style. For instance, there are some amusing gags involving him trying to get rid of a pesky dog (don’t worry, dog lovers, apparently the dog was his own and not hurt during filming). We were lucky to be able a newly reconstructed 22 minute version of THE SIMP  compiled by David Glass. It didn’t get quite the laughs I’d hoped for, but was a rare treat to see nonetheless.

Here’s a better Ham film, 1926’s ‘MOVE ALONG’:

lassie_lou54

Our next comic was actually one of Lloyd Hamilton’s directors in his early days. Charley Parrott, or as he later became better known, Charley Chase, was one of the top comedy directors in the teens and early 20s. He had a happy berth working in this capacity at Hal Roach studios, before fate intervened. Harold Lloyd, Roach’s top star, left to produce independently. Now, Roach’s remaining comics were all very good, but none had the human appeal of Lloyd. Roach realised his talented, good-looking director might fit the niche perfectly and put him in a series of one-reelers.

From the get-go, Chase had his comic style in place. While he was slightly reminiscent of Lloyd, he actually owed more to Max Linder, an eternally embarrassed bon vivant fallen on hard times, always winding up in farcical situations. Chase could not have existed in his full capacity before the jazz age, though; he was especially interested in risqué gags and plotlines to heighten his character’s embarrassment, and the permissive ways of the late 20s gave him perfect opportunities to do so. A prime example of this is LIMOUSINE LOVE (1928), which we showed to a terrific response. It’s also a great forum for Chase’s ability to take a simple, everyday beginning to a story, then pile on loads of ridiculous, absurd complications, yet still have these plot twists seem believable. In LIMOUSINE LOVE, he is just a normal guy, heading to his wedding. He’s run out of gas though, and time is ticking on. While Charley goes off to find some gas, a young lady (Viola Richard) is soaked in a mud-puddle. Seeing his seemingly abandoned car on the country road, she hops in the back to change her clothes and dry off.

limousine_love__icon1_

Charley returns, unaware of this, and drives off. Viola’s clothes fall out of the window, and he is left with a naked woman in the back of his car on the way to his wedding. Things go from bad to worse as he picks up a hitch-hiker, who of course, turns out to be her husband… Charley’s attempts to get rid of Viola without her husband or his fiancée knowing make up one of the funniest sequences in silent comedy.

220px-Mighty_Like_a_Moose_FilmPoster

Sadly, this film isn’t on YouTube, so here’s another. It’s another great example of Charley’s absurd, yet warm and believable stories. ‘MIGHTY LIKE A MOOSE’ (1926) is the story of a homely husband and wife who have plastic surgery to surprise each other. Trouble is, they then fail to recognise each other, and embark on an affair. This goofy sounding story actually seems totally natural when you see it told by Chase and director Leo McCarey. Throw in great performances, terrific set-pieces and you have one of the greatest silent comedies ever made. With shorts as good as this, who says features are better?

cropped-4623509910_389x2701.jpg

The talents of Lupino Lane were very different to Charley Chase. Lane was British, but born of a long line of entertainers tracing their roots back to 17th Century Italy. From the time he could walk, he had been trained in the rich pantomime tradition. He would later recall that, as a small child, his father made him sit in the splits for half an hour every day! All this training paid off; he was a master of comic timing, slapstick and acrobatics. Within seconds, he could backflip from a table, tumble across a room and fall into the splits, then raise himself up to standing position without putting so much as a hand to the ground. On film, he wore a perpetually startled expression enhanced by his huge eyes, almost as if these acrobatics happened by accident. A little chap, he used his size to contrast comically with the epic background his films placed him in: he might be a misfit gaucho, pirate, explorer or Mountie.

Lupino Lane - Pirates Beware (1928) 3

‘SWORD POINTS’ is his version of THE THREE MUSKETEERS, and is one of his best films. Even better, we were able to show it in a sparkling print that enhanced the whirlwind of gags and acrobatics.

exhibitorsherald91unse_0884

SWORD POINTS has two centrepieces. The first relies not on acrobatics, but is a carefully constructed wine cellar sequence that showcases an alternative facet of the music hall comedian: an ability to squeeze any possible gag out of a handful of props and a simple task. Here, Lane is sent to the wine cellar to fetch some tankards of wine. Over the course of the next few minutes, he manages to get all his hands and feet stuck in jugs, and flood the wine cellar, eventually swimming off with the tray of tankards atop his head.

The second is a maelstrom of rolls, flips and trips through some secret trapdoors, which also packs in some amusing take-offs on Fairbanks’ casual swashbuckling style. The speed and energy of these scenes must be seen to be believed. Sadly, ‘SWORD POINTS’ is another film not on the ‘tube, but Lane turned out dozens of these great little films. Here’s FANDANGO, also from 1928, and another good ‘un.

Lane’s talents were probably better off in short films than stretched across a full feature film. However, as I’m sure the Kennington audience would agree, he was still an incredible comedian and acrobat. The other silent contenders, in their own ways, were all real individuals whose efforts to bring laughter to the world deserve better remembrance. It was a pleasure to share them, both at The Cinema Museum, and here, with some new audiences.

Advertisements

Laurel & Hardy Revelations from Silent Laughter Saturday

I’m currently blogging about the silent comedy films shown at Silent Laughter Saturday, an all day festival of hilarity at London’s Cinema Museum.

  

L & H expert David Wyatt introduced some tasty rarities. While THE BATTLE OF THE CENTURY has been the talk of the town, other discoveries continue. First up was a ‘new’ version of ‘DUCK SOUP’. This is a pivotal film in the L & H story. Based on a sketch by Stan’s dad, it was later remade into the mature L & H film ‘ANOTHER FINE MESS’. As two bums on the run who hide in a mansion, and pose as the owner and his maid, it brings us remarkably close to the eventual L and H characters, even though it was incredibly early in their partnership. Compared to ‘BATTLE’, today’s version of DUCK SOUP featured only very small bits of new footage, but nonetheless managed to seem like a totally new film. The versions we’ve been accustomed to are incredibly choppy versions in dismal quality. Sourced from Belgium, the titles have been translated into French from the original English, then sloppily translated back into English, apparently by someone who speaks neither language. Thus, Stan’s exclamation ‘I’ve been robbed!’ becomes the incredibly unwieldy, ‘In effect, I have the feeling i have been disrobed!’. These sort of titles go a long way to killing the comedy, so it was great to have the much simpler English text. We also learned that one of these titles is the source of the seemingly random title: “Duck Soup, Hives! the whole house to ourselves!”. Well, I guess it’s still quite a random title. The second improvement was the print quality, light years beyond anything we’ve seen before, and also far less mauled about. I’ve always thought DUCK SOUP far too full of frenetic slapstick, but this version’s less edited, spliced shots offer fuller, more natural versions of the gags bringing the film closer to typical Hal Roach pacing. This helped me notice one subtle gag that I’d always missed before; as Stan and Babe commandeer a bicycle to help their escape, Stan chooses to ride on the handlebars of Babe’s bike, even though there’s one right next to it that he could have used! typical Laurel logic, already in place.  

The biggest surprise is the existence of a much fuller version of the scene in which Madeline Hurlock asks ‘Agnes’ the maid (actually Stan in drag) to run her a bath and give her a massage. Stan’s crying panic escalates as he sees her apparently naked through the keyhole of the bathroom door (modestly photographed, of course). Seen from the shoulders up, Madeline approaches the door. In panic, Stan thrusts his head under the bath water, making frantic “Go away!” Gestures with his hand. Finally giving in, he emerges, makes a “What’s the use?” face to the camera and turns to face Madeline. To his relief, he finds she has now covered herself in a dressing gown.
This scene was far too risqué for many audiences, as evidenced by a small town censorship reel, featuring many scenes deemed unsuitable for public consumption. These scenes included a slightly longer edit of the bathroom scene, including one extra title. A characteristically American H.M. walkerism, “MY GAWD, she’s raw! Seemed rather incongruous coming from the British Laurel’s lips. 

  
Following this, DW introduced another great historian, David Robinson. Mr Robinson was one of the few to appreciate Laurel and Hardy’s significance early on, capitalising on their visit to the UK in 1953-4 to gain an interview. The subsequent Sight and Sound article, ‘The Lighter People’ was the first real critical attention paid to L & H. David gave us some insight into the context of the time. L & H were forgotten by critics and writing about them was tantamount to “errant populism”; a number of Shakespeare references were deemed necessary to make the article seem more highbrow!
He then recalled his visit to the theatre. Of the act, BIRDS OF A FEATHER, he claimed to remember almost nothing, except their beautifully timed entrance through two doors, continually missing each other through a set of saloon doors:
“The audience went wild, which they obviously appreciated.”
Backstage, the young reporter was introduced to the comedians. Eyewitness accounts like these are becoming ever more rare, so these reminiscences were especially precious. He recalled them both as “incredibly kind, gracious people”, who were both wrapped up in matching blue dressing gowns. 
“They were both the opposite of their screen characters,” he continued, “Oliver was very serious, but Stanley talked and giggled all the time.” 
However, he did note one amusing similarity to the films…

“I know they got a great of happiness from their last marriages, but nonetheless the wives acted just like the wives in the films!” Mr Robinson recalled them forever fussing and scurrying about until Oliver had finally had enough:

“”Can’t you see I’m talking to the gentleman?” he said grandly, which was a rather wonderful thing to have said to you as a 23 year old.”

  

As the interview began, Our young reporter realised to his embarrassment that he had come equipped with pad, but no pencil. Graciously, and hiding his amusement, Babe came to the rescue with a pencil from deep within his dressing gown pocket. It was Stan, however, who led the interview, providing a precious series of reminiscences. Alas, the young David Robinson had no tape recorder, but we should be eternally grateful that he did manage to record such precious words when no-one else was bothering. It was absolutely fascinating to hear him speak first hand about his experience… Another moment when you wish to go back in time!

Rounding off this programme was a film that has been seen before, but only very occasionally. Stan Laurel’s ‘WHEN KNIGHTS WERE COLD’ was later fondly recalled by its creator, but was frustratingly elusive for decades. Happily, it turned up a few years ago at the Library of Congress, or at least the second reel did.

One of the first parodies of the kind he came to specialise in, ‘WHEN KNIGHTS…’ is a loose Robin Hood spoof that also references ‘WHEN KNIGHTHOOD WAS IN FLOWER’ (1922). Stan is Lord Helpus, a Slippery Knight, who sets out to rescue a Maid Marian type from the clutches of Prince John. It’s easy to see why Laurel had such fondness for this film. It taps into a superb vein of pantomime silliness inherited from the music hall tradition Stan loved so much. For instance, Laurel ‘rides’ a pantomime horse, actually a costume with fake legs dangling over the side. Stan does this superbly, giving the horse a character all of its own. There’s one especially funny moment as he feeds it from a water trough, and the horse drains the whole thing. 
 
Things get even more ridiculous as he is chased by a whole army of knights on pantomime horses, not to mention more than a little reminiscent of the much later ‘MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL’. 
Arriving at the castle walls, Stan tries to climb up some ivy, but finds that it only goes a few metres high. Not to be outdone, he finds a watering can, which instantly makes the ivy grow and shoots him up the castle walls. This is followed by a very funny fight scene, with a clever gag where, by trick photography. Stan seems to dart around the room to confound his opponent. There are some other clever, Keatonesque gags here too. Eventually, the king returns and Stan is pardoned. The final scene is the wedding, which turns into a ragtime dance before the king protests: “Stop! Woulds’t put my kingdom on the bum!”
This is a great little short film, or at least half of it. Hopefully one day this can be released to DVD, as it ranks with DR PYCKLE AND MR PRYDE as one of Stan’s best parodies. 
Laurel and Hardy still command so much love that any new scrap of footage is eagerly devoured by the faithful. We’ve been spoiled with all the recent discoveries, and this programme was another reminder of this. Truly, it’s a good time to be a silent comedy fan.

On the PATHS TO PARADISE at Silent Laughter Saturday…

SILENT-LAUGHTER-SATURDAY-logo-3

This weekend, Kennington Bioscope presented SILENT LAUGHTER SATURDAY, an all-day smorgasbord of classic and rare silent comedy curated marvellously by David Wyatt. Over the next few days, I’ll be blogging a run-down of the day, including many of our favourite lost comedians…


untitled

Kicking off things was the terrific 1925 film ‘PATHS TO PARADISE’  a Raymond Griffith-Betty Compson feature film. Griffith and Compson star as rival crooks, who are initially in a constant battle of wits to steal a priceless diamond necklace. This is a beautifully suave and witty comedy, a great showcase for the silk-hatted sophistication of Griffith. Owing something to Max Linder, he nevertheless has a subtle, laid-back style uniquely his own and is incredibly watchable. Constantly presenting himself under an array of pseudonyms, Griffith manages to bluff his way as a detective into the home where the diamonds are stored. Compson has also managed to find her way in, posing as a maid, and after several rival attempts, the pair eventually a Decide to team up. Things gather speed in some terrific night-time scenes inside the house. Dumbbell detective Edgar Kennedy is guarding the safe, and Griffith and Compson’s attempts to get to the necklace are both suspenseful and very funny. There’s one especially wonderful gag sequence as a dog steals Kennedy’s torch. Trying to wrestle it back, the spotlight is constantly turned on Griffith; whichever way he turns, somehow the light ends up following him. Eventually, an exhausted Griffith admits defeat and surrenders in the spotlight, but Kennedy is so embroiled in dealing with the dog that he doesn’t notice. Griffith reconsiders and makes a swift getaway.  This scene is a nifty variation on the routine most famously done by Chaplin in ‘THE GOLD RUSH’, where he constantly ends up with a gun pointing at him as two men fight over it.

Griffith & Compson in 'PATHS TO PARADISE'

After lots of twists and turns, Griffith and Compson finally outwit the detectives, and make off with the necklace. Up to now, this has been a very sophisticated drawing room-type comedy, so it’s a surprise to see a brilliant chase sequence at the end, more the sort of thing associated with Lloyd or Keaton than with this kind of  ‘light’ comedy. Even better, it’s a terrific one, really climaxing the film effectively. Driving south toward the Mexican border, more and more cops join in the chase until there are literally hundreds following Griffith and Compson’s car. Throw in some great visual gags ( a hilariously efficient tyre change; Griffith refuelling the car on the move) and you have a tremendously satisfying topper to the film that went over gangbusters with the Kennington Crowd. Sadly, the ending proper is missing from the film. The film peters out just as the couple reach the Mexican border. In a moment of doubt, they wonder whether they should give themselves up. Apparently, the film originally ended with them high-tailing back through all the cops to return the necklace, footage now lost to us. Nevertheless, the existing film does end at a perfectly acceptable point, and the loss did not detract from its overall effect.

‘PATHS TO PARADISE’ was introduced by the great Kevin Brownlow, who offered insight into Griffith’s failure to stay in the top rank of comedians. He recalled interviewing gag writer. Monte Brice, who had spoken of Griffith’s stubborn nature and perfectionism in constructing his films.

raymond_griffith

Another reason for Griffith’s dwindling screen career lay in his voice, or rather, lack of it. He was left with little more than a hoarse whisper after apparently acting in a stage melodrama where he had to scream every night. This was obviously going to be a problem as talkies beckoned.

Aptly, Griffith’s last film role was a wordless one, as a dying soldier in ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT. However, whilst his on-screen career may have been over, he remained busy as a producer for 20th Century Fox. He died in 1957.

2081153,6smqz__aIic26rMDSBg+6ve0dXjWDMr9BzUEy88u3tZBjmePWMNeFgd3fPSbJjq6wzKb_fFyuTeHO9i+18XSGw==

Sadly, in words I’m going to repeat a lot on this site, we’re left with precious little by which to judge his work. Most of the Paramount comedies he made went up in flames years ago, and those that do survive tend to be locked away in the vaults. The following year’s ‘HANDS UP’ is considered to be his masterpiece, and is available from http://www.grapevinevideo.com

LOST CLOWNS: A baker’s dozen!

Fresh from a fantastic weekend in London for Kennington Bioscope’s ‘SILENT LAUGHTER SATURDAY’, the blog is now ready to launch properly. Reviews of films from the weekend to follow, but before we get to that, here’s a brief rundown of some of the greatest forgotten comics you’ll find here. Sure, we’ll be featuring Keaton, Laurel & Hardy etc, too, but these are some of the comics who need a bit more information and appreciation about them on the internet, the core purpose of this site. As time goes on, I’d like to add pages for each of these performers to the site to hopefully become a definitive reference source, but for now, here’s a brief introduction to some of my favourite lost comedians…

  1. DAN LENO

tumblr_m075iledbH1qbp3zyo1_500

Going right back to the music hall days, it’s impossible to conceive of many of the later British comedians without Dan Leno. His sketches and whimsy were beloved by the Karno comics, and absorbed into their acts. Just look at that bowler-hatted, vacantly grinning face and tell me you don’t see Stan Laurel. Chaplin loved Leno, too. Leno died young at the turn of the century, and has left only scraps of his act, but he left a long shadow in British comedy.

2. MAX LINDER

film_linder

Just as influential, in his own way, was Frenchman Max Linder. Stage-trained Linder made films from the mid-1900s for Pathé. These films may look primitive, with their cardboard, painted sets, but Linder’s acting is remarkably subtle and sophisticated. As a silk-hatted boulevardier, he maintains this pleasingly low-key style as he is pulled into ridiculously farcical situations, such as being carried through the streets of Paris in his bath!

Chaplin, again, was a huge fan. He became friends with Linder (below), dedicating a photo to him, “To the one and only Max, the Professor. From his disciple, Charles Chaplin.” Linder’s sophisticated, dapper style in the face of eternal embarrassment was also a huge influence on two other great silent comics, Raymond Griffith and Charley Chase.

visuel_15

3. ROSCOE ARBUCKLE

circa 1920: A full-length studio portrait of the silent screen comedic actor Fatty Arbuckle (1887-1933) wearing a black hat and sticking his finger in his mouth. (Photo by Mitchell/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

It’s amazing how many of these underappreciated comedians had such an influence on the more enduring names. It was Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle, then Mack Sennett’s biggest star, who persuaded the producer not to fire a young, temperamental Chaplin. He’s also said to have provided the original tramp costume’s oversized pants. The eternally generous Arbuckle later had an even more profound impact on the young Buster Keaton,giving him his first screen roles and teaching him the ropes of film-making. On his own account, he made some really charming and funny screen comedies, before his career was unduly and unfairly stopped by a 1921 scandal. To this day, it’s impossible to write a paragraph about him without mentioning it, so I’m just going to shout from the rooftops, “HE WAS INNOCENT!” once more.

4. MABEL NORMAND

MabelNormand_with_round_mirror

The first really popular screen comedienne, Mabel was also a pioneering female director. From the mid 1910s, she was directing her own films at Keystone, later moving into feature films for Goldwyn. She’s great proof that women could be both funny and attractive at the same time, which was a difficult thing to achieve in such a male-dominated industry. Mabel was a wonderfully lively performer, who deserves remembering more for her pioneering work.

5. ALICE HOWELL

CCP_Fig163d_Howell_WFP-HOW021

Alice Howell took a more clownish approach to her humour. Her round, eternally started kewpie doll face, topped off with a mass of frizzy red hair was instantly amusing, and totally suited the ditzy characters she played on film. However, she was still a true original, almost a forerunner of Lucille Ball. Her films are sadly scarce, but reveal a uniquely funny lady. “Everyone a Howell!” was her strapline.

6. LUPINO LANE

Lane1

To see one of Lupino Lane’s films is to suspend belief in the laws of physics; he was a phenomenal acrobat who surpasses even Keaton. Tracing his family’s history in entertainment back to 1642, he was a proud inheritor of the pantomime tradition, and could do pretty much anything: acrobatics, dancing, singing, crosstalk routines, juggling. He later added starring in, writing and directing Hollywood comedies to his resumé. These films are great little two reelers, maybe not deep in characterisation, but they make up for it in a whirlwind of gags and acrobatics. Lane’s signature stunts include rising up from the splits, somersaulting down flights of stairs, and running 360 degrees around the inside of a proscenium arch! In later years, he returned to England, where he originated the role of Bill Snibson in ‘ME AND MY GIRL’, along with the famous dance, ‘The Lambeth Walk’. He should be recognised as a national treasure in Britain, but is undeservedly forgotten.

7. CHARLEY BOWERS

Charley Bowers ad sm

The films of Charley Bowers are as jaw-dropping as Lupino Lane’s, but for different reasons. Bowers isn’t an astounding performer, but he was an incredibly talented animator and gagman. In two series of comedies in the late 1920s, he mixed his wild, incredibly realistic stop motion animation into live action films starring himself. The results are incredible, a world where pussy willow trees sprout living cats, mice fire guns, cars hatch from eggs and the figures inside paintings come to life. Beloved by surrealists like André Breton, Bowers was just way ahead of his time, and returned to obscurity before being rediscovered in recent years.

8. HARRY LANGDON

342_HL-LongPants-portrait

Langdon is usually cited as one of the “big 4” names of silent comedy, with Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd, but he’s far, far less well remembered than those performers. Part of the reaon, I think, is that he is very much an offbeat, reactionary performer, a minimalist in reaction to the overblown chaos of Mack Sennett madness. Now that we’re less familiar with this, it’s harder to place Langdon’s curious, quiet style. He played an overgrown baby of indeterminate age, his performances marked by long silences and the tiniest flinches in facial expression. He was proclaimed as the next Chaplin in his day, but crashed and burned through a combination of factors. He’s kind of a marmite performer, an acid test for your appreciation of silent comedy. Those who ‘get’ him revere him. Among them were Chaplin, Keaton and Stan Laurel. That must count for something.

9. LLOYD HAMILTON

cropped-slapstick_hamilton_061.jpg

You might recognise the photo above from our header image. Lloyd Hamilton (on the left) is another comedian’s comedian, a reactionary type who has a similarly ‘marmite’ appeal to Harry Langdon. Playing a curious overgrown Mama’s Boy type, he walked with a prissy waddle and treated everything with disdain. A typical Hamilton film has little story, but is simply a string of disasters to showcase his fine reactionary comedy. However, he’s hamstrung (pardon the pun) by the lack of most of his best films, and the fractured and scattered nature of what remains. But, as Mack Sennett said, “[Lloyd Hamilton] had comic motion. He’d do nothing but walk across the screen and make you laugh.”

10. CHARLEY CHASE

the_nickel_nurser__poster___stan_taffel_

I simply adore Charley Chase. Debonair, charming and a multi-talented gagman, director and story-constructionist, he had a knack for creating beautiful little farce comedies that escalate to heights of absurdity yet remain completely believable throughout. For example, ‘MIGHTY LIKE A MOOSE’, in which he and his wife have plastic surgery without telling each other, meet on the street, and then embark on an affair. It’s a totally ridiculous story, yet made believable and human by the warmth and skill of Chase and his team. Chase continued doing some great, charming work in the talkies, making short films at Hal Roach studios that need to be seen more widely.

11. WALTER FORDE

Walter_forde

Walter Forde was once billed as ‘Britain’s only comedian!”. That’s rather stretching it, but he was the only comedian making film comedy shorts and features in Britain for most of the silent era. Forde’s work in this area continues to be undervalued, but is slowly being re-evaluated. He played a likeable chap, “two parts Chaplin, three parts Harold Lloyd,” as one reviewer put it, and directed his films himself. A shy man, he gave up performing in 1930, and instead became a renowned director of both comedies and dramas.

12. WILL HAY

172240

Taking Walter Forde’s place as premier comic of British films in the sound era was Will Hay. Hay’s music hall character was an incompetent ignorant schoolmaster who was barely a step ahead of his pupils. This enabled him to follow a rich line of comedy, transferable in films to any position of seedy authority: ship’s captain, shyster lawyer, policeman, or stationmaster in his all-time classic ‘OH, MR PORTER!’. Hay’s films are acknowledged as classics, but as a performer he needs some more love. he’s another superb reactionary comedian, a master of pauses, sniffs and shady glances to sell material that looks feeble on paper. He’s also one who stands up very well today, as British bureaucracy and incompetence hasn’t gone anywhere in the 65 years since his passing…

13 CLARK & McCULLOUGH

mcculloughpaulbio

We close with a wonderfully vibrant act who flourished in sound comedies. Clark and McCullough were successful on Broadway before making a great little series of sound two-reel shorts for RKO in the early 1930s. They are often considered Marx Brothers rip-offs (partly due to Bobby Clark’s painted-on glasses), yet turned out a brand of humour uniquely their own, rich in movement, dialogue, pantomime and farce.

As I leave off here for now, I’m already thinking of the other comics I haven’t included here today… Raymond Griffith,  Jack Hulbert, Stanley Lupino, Snub Pollard, Thelma Todd… Rest assured, they’ll all have their place here. I hope you’ll bookmark this site and keep dropping by from time to time to share these great performers with me. Next up, some highlights from ‘SILENT LAUGHTER SATURDAY’, featuring some of the names above.